This morning we were picked up at our hostel by Grant and Gary, our guides for the day. They arrived in two pick-ups whose beds had been converted to have three rows of bench seats. The drive to Matopos National Park was only about an hour but was pretty brisk with the chilly morning air finding its way through the gaps of the canvas covering the back.
Matopos is a lot different than your typical African game park. This region of central Zimbabwe is at a higher elevation with tremendous rock formations as opposed to the flat, open savannahs customary in many other areas. Because of this there are no lions, elephants, cheetahs or buffalo here. I know what you're thinking. "Why would you spend a day driving through a park that does not have three out of the Big Five?" Well, besides the crazy rock formations Matopos does have somewhat of an abundance of an animal rarely seen in most other parks; rhinos. Another thing worth mentioning was that it was also nearly empty. Actually, until we got there, completely empty. Grant spoke to the ranger at the gate and he said we were the first trucks to come through in three days! This is a big park and due to high prices (at least for locals) and a complete drop in tourism, hardly anyone comes here anymore. Grant later told us that this was the first time in 3 weeks that he had taken a group in!
Entering the park, we rolled up the cover of the truck bed allowing for unimpeded viewing and bounced around on the unpaved roads with our eyes peeled for anything. For the first half hour we didn't come across anything too exciting. We saw a fish eagle, a couple of antelope and a rock hyrax (also called a dassie, which is like a big gopher and oddly enough the nearest relative of the elephant). All of a sudden Grant stopped our truck and got out to take a look around. After about 30 seconds he motioned for all of us to get out of the truck and follow him. We walked into the bush for about a minute before Grant stopped and whispered, "Over there," as he pointed in the direction of a few trees. It took a few seconds to focus into the shadows but about 75 feet away stood a huge male white rhino. Rather than do what our minds were telling us and making tracks back for the truck, we stood and watched as he lumbered around looking for a spot to rest after a long night of walking around and feeding. Because a rhino has very poor vision he could not see us but Grant assured us that he could hear us and, because he had become at least somewhat accustomed to human voices, the noises we made actually relaxed him because we were making our presence known and not posing as a threat. Every couple of minutes, however, it would turn its head toward our voices and give a bit of a snort to announce his already obvious presence. At this point Grant said that if anything happened we should run towards a nearby thicket and he would draw its attention in another direction. This was very comforting. A 3,000+ pound beast with two horns that is much faster than we are just may decide to charge and, if he does, we have a thicket for protection...if we make it there in time. Thankfully, for the next 20 minutes or so we observed this seemingly gentle giant from a "safe" distance of about 30 feet without incident.
Before proceeding I'd like to take a few sentences to mention the differences between the black and white rhino. First of all, color has nothing to do with it. All rhinos are basically the same shade of gray. When the Dutch settled southern Africa they gave one of the rhinos the name "vett" (the Dutch word for "wide") since they had a noticeably larger mouth than the other rhinos. Later, when the British took over much of the region they assumed that "vett" meant "white" and called that one the white rhino and the other the opposite, or black rhino. An easier way to tell the difference between the two besides the mouth size is the horns. A black rhino's two horns will be about the same size while the white rhino will have a long horn in front with a much smaller one behind it. Since white rhinos feed off the ground and black rhinos feed off of bushes and trees, a white rhino's neck will also be longer. The biggest issue concerning our safety (seeing as we were strolling around on foot) was how these rhinos differ in temperament. A black rhino is notoriously short-tempered and will charge almost anything while a white rhino is much more docile. Luckily for us, most of the rhinos in Matopos are white.
Following our encounter with the large male we continued on through the park looking to get lucky again. The night before Norman (who runs our hostel) told us about a female rhino who had recently had a calf and had been seen periodically in the park. After about 20 minutes or so of driving Grant stopped the truck again and signaled for everyone to follow him. Five minutes later we saw what we came for. About 50 yards away we could easily make out the huge profile of two rhinos slowly making their way towards our direction. It wasn't for a few minutes of them getting closer that we could make out a baby rhino sticking close to one of the bigger ones. Two minutes after that they were right in front of us and nearly oblivious to our presence. It turns out that the other large rhino was a two year old son of the female and was sticking close to mom because he was not yet big enough to compete for territory with the park's other fully grown males. Evidently the female wanted her son to head out on his own so she could raise her little one but he wasn't having any of it. (Sounds like some humans I know) The baby rhino was actually our biggest concern as it was very curious and kept straying away from its mother to get a better look at the sounds it was hearing. Luckily for us, a rhino's eyesight is at its best when it is young and slowly deteriorates over its life. Though we had to take a few steps back on a couple of occasions, the baby never got close enough to upset the mother too much and we were able to observe them for a good half hour before we had had enough.
At this point, the groups split with those doing the full day excursion (a $20 optional activity) heading out to have lunch and the half day people heading back to Bulawayo. Having popped for the full day I joined the other four people in my group who had done the same and headed in Grant's truck to a picturesque picnic area on a large lake. As we set up lunch on a table only about 30 feet from the water's edge, Grant enlightened us to the fact that only a few weeks past a man had gotten too close to the water and was attacked and eaten by a crocodile. It didn't help our nerves that we could see a fairly large croc sunning himself on a sandbank that was only about 30 yards out from the shore we were on. It wasn't until after we were through eating that we heard a loud croaking noise and realized that the large black rock near the croc was indeed a huge hippo. We all began doing our hippo imitations and were surprised to see it get up and lumber into the safety of the water. Turned out that it was a mother with a very young calf making her easily spooked. For the rest of the time we were there she kept herself between us and her calf and her eyes left us only when she was fully submerged. With the show over, we proceeded to another area of the park to explore the caves that were home to the largest paintings of the San people, thought to be up to 6,000 years old.
The San people, more commonly known as "bushmen" (like the little guy in "The Gods Must Be Crazy"), were peaceful nomadic people that lived throughout southern Africa and typically had to endure harsh conditions as they were periodically forced out of much of the more desirable locations by more war-like tribes. One of these areas was the steep, rocky hills of Matopos. We arrived at the base of one of the largest hills and began our ascent through a grassy wooded area. Ten minutes later we were staring up a steep rocky face. Again, the rock formations here were like nothing I have ever seen. After another 20 minutes of huffing and puffing up the path we came to a level area with a small forested area that seemed out of place given the surroundings. At the other end of this was the cave. Considering their age the paintings were incredibly detailed. Nearly every large animal that lived in the area was represented and one could even make out the different types of antelope by their size, length/shape of their horns and body shape. After a few minutes here we decided that we were going to tough it out and go to the very top of the hill, about a 10 minute walk up sheer rock and the steepest part of the hill.
Even though I nearly passed out getting up there, the views were incredible. From where we stood we could see miles and miles of other hills and valleys with absolutely no sign of civilization. If it was hotter, it could have been the surface of Mars. From this vantage we could also see across a valley to a nearby hill that is the butial place of Cecil Rhodes, the famous British explorer/entrepreneur after whom Rhodesia was named.
After our 30 or so minute descent we headed back to the truck for a much needed drink before heading back to Bulawayo. Needless to say that with all the hiking we did I slept like a baby that night which was good. Tomorrow was a big day as we were heading to one of the natural wonders of the world, Victoris Falls.